LEARNING TO DIE IN MIAMI: CONFESSIONS OF A REFUGEE BOY
By Carlos Eire
Free Press, $26, 307 pages
In 2000, the standoff between federal authorities and Miami’s Cuban-American community over the fate of Elian Gonzalez - a young refugee rescued after his mother drowned at sea during their escape from Cuba - became a referendum on both Fidel Castro’s revolution and the thirst for freedom that had led so many Cuban refugees to sacrifice life itself.
While some witnessed the unfolding media circus with bemusement, the Cold War family drama rattled many in this nation of immigrants, including Carlos Eire, the Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University, who had a personal stake in the Elian Gonzalez story.
In the wake of the Cuban revolution, 11-year old Carlos Eire and his older brother, Tony, were among the 14,000 Cuban children sent without their parents on the Operacion Pedro Pan airlift to the United States. His multifaceted, darkly comic memoir “Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy” is the sequel to his memoir about his pre-revolutionary childhood in Cuba, “Waiting for Snow in Havana,” the winner of the 2003 National Book Award for nonfiction. His new book passionately defends his parents’ decision to save him from Mr. Castro’s “totalitarian nightmare.” Yet the author doesn’t fudge one moment on the seismic emotional and spiritual consequences of that fateful choice.
“Learning to Die” is a reference to the multiple “deaths” and “rebirths” that punctuate the brothers’ travels across the turquoise sea to Miami, where they shuttle among an assortment of foster homes and then depart to stay with relatives in Bloomington, Ill., before reuniting with their mother in Chicago.
The boys dive into the abyss of cultural alienation and struggle to reinvent themselves as they accommodate both friendly and hostile forces. Carlos morphs into Charles, then Charlie and Chuck, and learns to fear the onset of an annihilating despair that grabs him when he feels most alone. Ultimately, the emotional turmoil demands a spiritual resolution, and Carlos’ resulting epiphany transforms a refugee’s search for identity into a searing testimony of personal conversion that won’t be forgotten easily.
Sounds grim. But the author’s robust love of the English language and his infectious hilarity leaven this stream-of-consciousness narrative, making raw visceral fears less threatening in the end. If anything, the author’s celebration of the absurd is a healthy response to outsized political events and bureaucratic snafus that render a child’s deepest desires moot. Thus, who can blame Carlos for dubbing the abusive Cuban “guardians” who preside over one of the boys’ foster homes “Lucy and Ricky Ricardo” while their roach- and mice-infested home becomes the “Palace Ricardo”?
In truth, the early childhood of these privileged Cuban boys has left them ill-prepared for a scrappy refugee existence. Their father, a municipal judge, devotes his energies to the development of his personal art collection and believes he has experienced several reincarnations - including a previous life as Louis XVI, while he thinks his Cuban wife once lived as Marie Antoinette.
The patriarch’s habit of magical thinking provides ready fodder for the author, who refers to his parents as “Louis XVI” and “Marie Antoinette.” The angry labels underscore a bitter truth: A child’s separation from his parents can create lasting damage, no matter the justification. When the parents call the boys at Palace Ricardo, Carlos and Tony offer reassurance that everything is great. The lie acknowledges their parents’ impotence and myopia. The boys will never be reunited with Louis XVI, yet his “absence is his presence.” He “haunts our memories and serves as a convenient scapegoat.”
Marie Antoinette soon embarks on her own pilgrimage of death and rebirth. She, too, becomes a refugee, residing in a cramped Chicago apartment basement, earning her keep as an expert seamstress and sharing what little she has with those even less fortunate.
Unfortunately, Marie Antoinette’s new start in Chicago also marks the end of her sons’ sweet rebirth in Bloomington, where generous relatives have helped the boys settle into mainstream America. Tony retreats further into an “impenetrable force field,” fleeing his responsibilities through alcoholism and mirroring his own father’s flight from reality in “Castrolandia.”
But Carlos learns to stand up to his demons. “The Imitation of Christ,” a 500-year-old spiritual classic thrust into his bag before his flight from Havana, is the only inheritance on which he can rely. Perusing its dog-eared pages, he learns to perceive the spiritual graces that accompany a self-annihilating surrender to God’s mysterious purposes. “We’re seeds sown on fertile sinking soil,” he writes. “Dying is our lot, but not our end.”
Decades hence, unsought memories of childhood continue to invade Mr. Eire’s consciousness, prompting his efforts to orchestrate a perfect childhood for his own offspring. Yet he no longer fears the abyss. “[A]ll genuine pilgrimages,” he concludes, “ultimately lead to the core of the soul through a linking of heaven and earth, past, present, and future; self and other, dreaming and waking; the here-and-now with the then-and there.”
Joan Frawley Desmond, who writes on educational, cultural and religious topics, lives in Maryland.